Home-built travel trailers and the demise of a tricked-out ’53 Ford in Iowa

HomemadeThe topic of staying in a travel trailer while working at grain elevator construction sites has prompted Charles J. Tillotson (“Uncle Chuck”) to do some reminiscing and dig through his archive of photos.

He writes:

The first one is a photo of the last trailer Dad built in 1937, which was an upgrade to the one that your mom and I are standing in the doorway of. He had covered the exterior of this trailer with some kind of protective fabric, which doesn’t seem to be attached very well.

The previous trailer had an exposed plywood exterior that was either stained or painted and it evidently didn’t hold up. The focus should be on the small size of the trailers which were probably about 15 feet long, much like the size of the early camper trailers of the 1950s and 1960s. If you allow room for the stove, toilet, closet and even a fold-down tabletop with a little settee, where did we all sleep?

The photo [below] was taken in late summer in Albert City, Iowa, and shows my Dad and me standing along side of my 1953 Ford with another older gentleman who I assume was the Albert City superintendent packing something into the trunk. We had finished up our work on Albert City, and Dad had assigned the three of us to travel across the state to a job he was starting in Clinton, Iowa.


Soon after the photo was taken we three boys [Chuck, Tim, and Mike] left Albert City and took along with us a couple of men who wanted to continue working for Tillotson Co. We took off in my beautiful ’53 Ford, which I had modified with a two-tone paint job, a Continental fake-spare-tire kit (remember those?) and lowering blocks among other things. I was driving very fast and in a pattern learned from my Dad, taking short cuts via the old one-mile graveled country roads through the tall cornfields. Zooming along and approaching an intersection ahead I spotted a dust trail from a vehicle approaching the same intersection on my right. With the road being gravel I decided that rather than stop for the oncoming vehicle (that had the right of way) to instead outrun it.

I had almost made it through the intersection when the oncoming vehicle clipped my rear bumper and put me into a sideways spin. I countered the spin by yanking the wheel in the opposite direction which brought me out of the spin, but the action was so fast it put me into another spin in the opposite direction. We zigzagged back and forth for a bit and eventually headed into a huge irrigation ditch, which we entered, rolled over, and flipped upside down. I remember my bro Mike standing up in the back seat hollering at me to ‘straighten out the car’ but to no avail. I think there were five of us in the car including my bros, none of which had seat belts fastened but by some miraculous ending, we were all able to crawl out of the car without a scratch.

The farmer who hit me was a local fellow, and he rounded up a tractor with an operator and the car was pulled back upright and out of the ditch, whereby it was towed off to a local mechanic’s shop.

I don’t remember who came to rescue us, but somehow we continued on to the Clinton job where we put in some closing days of the summer, laboring there. 


When it came time to go home, my bro Tim and I went and picked up the Ford which still was operable (a testimonial to Ford), but the vehicle had multiple dents and bruises including missing a windshield which had been knocked out in the crash.

Tim and I bought a pair of goggles and proceeded to hit the trail (in a light drizzle) to Omaha with the wind and rain in our hair and elsewhere. My Dad knew of the accident but he had never seen the car until we got home whereby he came out of the house and I’m sure almost had a heart attack when he viewed the pile of junk that once was my beautiful ’53 Ford. As I recall, he had the car towed away to the junk yard.

It’s funny how viewing old photos can bring back memories of both the exciting and dull days gone by. It’s too bad the photographs taken today are no longer hard-copied by most people and their memories no longer documented to tell the stories of days gone by for both their own revisitation as well as their offspring.

Memories of William Osborn’s automotive fleet from A to Olds

By Kristen Osborn Cart

Long before my grandpa William A. Osborn started working in the elevator business, his father Arthur K. Osborn lost his Nebraska farm when the loan he co-signed for a son-in-law went bad. This occurred around the start of the Great Depression. Being the eldest son, Grandpa had to find another way besides farming to make a living. He was in the National Guard for a time when he was very young, and afterward he worked as an auto mechanic and in construction.

His first car was a Model A Ford. Around 1939, he bought a used 1936 Chevy. By 1945, after he had worked for Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha, and had moved from a farm where they rented into town, he bought a 1941 Chevy. That was the last used car he owned.

Alice and Bill Osborn, in back, with their brood, from left: Dick, Audrey, Jerry--and the '36 Chevy.

In 1948 Grandpa bought a 1948 Chevrolet sedan. Two years later, he bought a 1950 Buick Special, brand new, and also purchased two new 1950 Chevy sedans. My Dad’s brother Dick likely paid for one of them, which he drove. Grandpa and Grandma went to Oklahoma to pick up the other one for Grandma and drive it back.

These purchases came after Mayer-Osborn Company was established and their first project, the elevator in McCook, Nebraska, was finished.

In 1951 Grandpa bought a new 1951 Buick Roadmaster. Two years later he bought a 1953 Packard, but soon the engine block cracked, so the next year he bought a new 1954 Cadillac and another new Chevrolet for my grandmother. After Grandpa moved to Denver, Dad lived alone with Grandma for a number of years, and he had the use of her car when he worked his first teaching job at Luther College in Wahoo, Nebraska, in the fall of 1955. After 1956, Dad purchased her ’54 Chevy for $1000 and had it when he moved with Mom to Denver. He paid it off by 1961.

Kristen's dad, Jerry, with the 1950 Buick Special.

Grandpa retired from Mayer-Osborn in 1955. He drove his Cadillac until the early ’60s when he bought a new Oldsmobile that he drove for a number of years, finally trading for his last car, a 1968 Olds, which is presently in Dad’s barn. I remember that car and sitting on its burning hot seat in the middle of summer, the inside smelling like softened plastic. I remember when it was new, with seats as wide as a park bench and a big round steering wheel.

Dick Osborn with 1950 Chevy Deluxe

Grandpa did pretty well in his business. There was still a good nest egg after he died in 1977. He had to have a good reliable vehicle because he certainly put on the miles.